Kindness, the Giver of Life
‘Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.
– Theodore Isaac Rubin
I was told the other day that about half of what we do each day, though it feels like we made a conscious decision, is actually a blind habit.
Personally, I think it’s much more than half.
Actually, I think almost everything we do is habitual. Some are instinctive maintenance habits, like heartbeat and knowing how to breath and digest food. Then there are conditioned habits written into our genetic code by the experiences of our ancestors. These habits determine predilections and abilities we’ve inherited through changes made to our DNA caused by the experiences of past generations.
For example, if you had a parent or grandparent who lived through a traumatic occurrence like a war or some natural disaster, or some other terrible event, it affects their genetic make-up which is then transferred down the generations to you.
This phenomenon is called behavioural epigenetics and it might explain why, after thousands of years of war related trauma, we humans are generally so damaged and needful. I wonder if maybe the human race, after thousands of years of war, is now suffering from a cumulative case of PTSD.
Luckily it’s not only trauma which creates this genetic effect. The opposite also applies. Ancestors whose lives were focused on profoundly selfless acts or exceptional achievements, particularly those involving kindness and compassion, also create a genetic effect, giving a boost to subsequent generations.
Which makes it so very important that, as a healing gift to future generations, we should be meditating and practicing kindness and compassion in our lives, to heal the damage past generation have left us with.
I’m a sucker for kindness. So I thought I’d write a post about how incredibly, profoundly important it is as a central principle of life.
When I see, feel, witness acts of kindness it makes my body thrill. I get this pleasurable thing on my skin. It tingles.
It’s as if my entire body says, “YES!!!!”.
I never really noticed this feeling, until Xmas of 2002. I mean, I know I must have had it, but I just never noticed how intoxicating and life affirming kindness can be.
That year I was writing a novel. I’d come back to Australia from wherever I’d been and I was totally broke – unable to rent anywhere to live or support myself, but totally absorbed in writing my book.
My mother told me I could live with her while I finished it, so I redirected all my snail-mail (yes, we did paper mail in 2002) to a box at her local Post Office, and everyday I used to take a break from writing and walk down to the post office to pick it up.
There was a young girl who worked there, serving behind the counter. I noticed her because she had an interesting face.
Anyway, it being Xmas, I had a handful of about fifty cards to send. I took them down to the post office and stood in the queue, and when I got to the counter, this girl was serving. She didn’t look up – just asked how she could help me.
Now, I had designed a whole lot of Xmas cards myself, and they were a bit bigger than normal cards, so the envelopes had also needed to be larger than usual size. I hadn’t thought it would be a problem, and had budgeted for the standard cost of 50 cents to post each card, figuring the lot would cost me $25.
But when the girl looked at the envelopes, she looked up and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but do you realise these will cost 95 cents each to post?”
“Oh … no. Why?”
“Because they’re slightly bigger than normal … I”m sorry.”
No point in arguing, I thought, just pay it. The total came to $47, much more than I had planned for, but I shrugged and handed her a $50 note.
Now, she could have easily done nothing – given me my $3 change and I would have walked away, and that would have been fine.
But instead, she handed me back $25 change.
That is, she processed my over-sized cards for normal postage.
As she put the $25 change in my palm, like an idiot, I stood there staring at it, confused.
I said, “You’ve given me too much.”
Then it happened.
She looked at me and smiled and said, “It doesn’t matter … they never check that the cards are too big anyway.”
And right then, the light in her face made her so extraordinarily beautiful, I thought my heart would explode.
“Thank you,” I said.
She laughed, and I left.
Such a little thing, yet it had such a big effect.
That girl will never know how powerful her action was that day – how, to some small degree, it changed my life. Because even though I’d been meditating for a decade, I’d still not had direct experience of how life-giving kindness can be. Unbelievable I know – it’s hard to explain. I suppose the only way I can explain is, I’d been focussed on the investigation of meditation, but the personal effects of it were still evolving – and that was the moment for that particular epiphany to happen for me.
And she created that moment.
And that was when my habits began to change, simply because I had become conscious of how kindness had affected me – how it had given me an extra spark of life that lit up my day.
Which lead, over time, to me noticing how unkindness affected me.
After that I noticed how, at those times I was neglectful, or unkind in some way, it would make me feel a little ill. A tense, sour feeling.
I’d never noticed it before.
Richard Heinburg referred to this feeling in his wonderful book, ‘Memories and Visions of Paradise’ :
‘Medical experiments have consistently shown that mental attitudes and emotional states have a significant influence on health. Emotional states associated with egoic separateness – anger, blame, and feelings of isolation – tend to reduce the levels of body chemicals that serve to raise the pain threshold (endorphins) and that maintain immunity to infection (immunoglobulins). Emotions associated with transcendence of ego – for example, empathy, kindness and nurturing – produce higher levels of these critical body chemicals.’
One more story on this matter.
One of the reasons I love Thailand and Thai people is because they are kind. By that I mean, they act the way they feel they should act rather than how they feel. Put another way, I know that even if a Thai person hates my guts, in most cases, he or she will still act with propriety and kindness.
One particular instance comes to mind, which I witnessed in the 80’s.
This particular night I was headed back to the hotel where I was staying near Sukhumvit road. I was walking past whole lot of bars full of drunk Westerners, and paused outside one bar, because a large, and very drunk Scottish man was screaming at a group of four Thai people, two men and two women, sitting eating food at a roadside stall. I don’t know why he was screaming at them and I’m sure he didn’t know why either – he was mad with drink.
The Thai people ignored him. They kept quietly eating their food, minding their own business. But it seemed that being ignored only infuriated the Scottish man even more. He came up closer now, swearing at them and threatening them, and still they ignored him. So he came closer, until he was leaning over their table screaming at them.
They kept on eating.
Now, this road was very narrow – no more than an alley, so motorbikes had to weave through the milling crowd to get through. As one motorbike passed behind the Scottish man, the pedal clipped his ankle and he fell heavily beside the table, with his ankle badly injured. It began bleeding profusely.
The group of people he had been screaming at were the first to bend down and help him. Lifting him up, they seated him at their table. The two men left to find a telephone to ring for an ambulance as the women knelt down and began tending to him. One of them took off her scarf and wrapped it around the wound to staunch the flow of blood while the other squatted down and held him up in her lap.
The Scottish man was so shocked that they were taking care of him he began to weep and apologise profusely as the women kept tending to him. They smiled, saying, ‘mai pen rai, mai pen ra.’ (no problem, no problem).
One night recently, while sitting with some friends, among whom was a Thai man, I related that particular story. He nodded in recognition, then smiled and said, ‘In our culture, it is very important to give kindness. We are taught this in school and by our parents and in temples. But it’s not only to make us feel good. It’s because kindness holds society together. Kindness makes our society strong and good to live in.’
And I understood.
There was no sentiment to the kindness I witnessed that night. It was not done because people felt it, nor did it expect reciprocation. It was a practical act – a type of kindness forming a spiritual glue that holds a community together in trust and good-will.
This kind of unsentimental, practical kindness is the blood, bones and flesh of material being.
Without it plants, birds, dogs and babies die.
And worlds fall apart.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)